Monday, 21 March 2011

Beating the Heat

4 -19 March 2011
It is the peak hot season and today I took a ride on the back of an open truck. It gave me a kind of adrenaline rush, as I was standing on the back of a speeding truck seeing the passing slow moving pedestrians, overtaking cars and taking the hot air blowing straight on the face. I don't know how I long would have been able to stand that but I had a feeling that I was really enjoying that adventure in the peak hot season of northern Ghana. That's when I thought that I should write something about the hot season.
Wait till the hot season comes. You'll have a real experience of the northern part of Ghana.” I have been hearing this from various people who range from VSO staff, volunteers and locals who have spent some considerable time here in this part of the world. For me, the seasonal change seemed very natural and similar to India. When I arrived in the month of July, it was raining here. I had escaped from the four and half month torrential Mumbai monsoon to the mild but erratic six month West African monsoon. The monsoonal rains stopped somewhere in the month of November. Somewhere in the month of December started Harmattan which brought coolness and lots of dust in the air. Similar to the rains, Harmattan winds were erratic. Sometimes they blew and sometimes they did not. In the mid of February the weather suddenly changed and while everybody back in India, was still enjoying the cool winter, it started to become hot.
I did not realize that weather has changed till one day, when I found myself buying two more water sachets than my usual one water sachet during the day. After about a week, I started to hear people discussing the weather. “Oh, my goodness, it is too hot these days, isn't it?”, I heard volunteers from UK saying in their typical British accent. Whenever I asked any local person, “hello, how are you?” I found him wiping sweat on his head and answering, “I am hot.” Suddenly there was an outbreak of Facebook status updates by the volunteers in the northern part of Ghana, in which the daily temperatures and the uneasiness brought to the people by the heat was being fervently discussed.
One afternoon, I was returning back to Bongo from Bolgatanga in an open passenger carrier vehicle and when tro left Bolgatanga town and hot air started to blow directly on my face. My eyes became dry suddenly and I felt for the first time that the heat is for real. Back in India, I am used to the hot and humid weather during summers which gets to a maximum of 350 Celsius. I have not yet seen the temperatures measured by the thermometers but they say that they are always above 420 Celsius during the day these days. Internet search about temperatures in Bolgatanga shows such varied figures that it is best not to believe any of them. Unlike India, there are no weather reports anywhere on television and radio and no authentic figure is announced for the public use.
My typical day in March starts here at around 6:00 am with relative coolness in the air (it is relative) making it possible to do exercise or other physical activities like sweeping, washing clothes etc. I usually see women doing their threshing and pounding outside their houses during this time of the day. There are also some old men hanging out outside their houses and doing nothing. After having a bath, I make breakfast and eat it till about 8:30. By the time I finish my breakfast, I find myself wiping the sweat off the body. When I look outside during this time, the women doing their work are no longer there. The old men are vanished. The tree which I can see from my house is completely defoliated at this time of the year and it is full with beautiful white coloured inflorescence. But that means that there are no children there playing under its shade these days. The open fields in front of my house are now completely vacant with no people around.
When I reach the office by 9:30 am, the scene is as usual and people are seen carrying their usual businesses and moving around, since most of them are working inside their offices and not labouring like those threshing women. One can see more number of people hanging out under the mango tree, which really provides cool shade than the concrete ceilings of the buildings. When it turns to 12:00 in the noon, it gets really very hot. I am lucky to get myself placed in the office of the District Planning Unit which has an air conditioner. There have been number of days with either power failures or problems with the air conditioner and I have found myself sitting in the office, wiping sweat off my face and trying my best to concentrate on my work.
In the noon when the temperatures are at their peak, people find their brains becoming slow. Many people place their heads on the desks and take rest. Instead of sitting under the fans which can circulate only hot air, it is better to go outside in the balcony and see if one can get some sporadic breeze. When I had gone for my meeting with the Shea Butter Processing Centre in this month, the women had arranged their meeting in the veranda instead of their main hall as they wanted to take advantage of the breeze.
By the time I finish my day and return to the house in the evening, I find my bedroom in the preheated condition, because two of the walls of my bedroom receive the direct heat from the sun on its northerly move. It remains hot and it is impossible to get uninterrupted sleep until 3:00 am, when it really cools down and I find myself getting into real sleep. It is just three hours more and my alarm buzzes at 6:00 am. I feel a bit tired for a while because of lack of proper sleep but as I see morning light, the women threshing and small girls fetching water, I find myself ready for the day.
Overcoming the problems of hot weather was not as difficult for me as I observed how local people have been managing it and trying to find really localized solutions. I heard that people sleep outside during hot season and I started keeping all the windows open. This helped to cool down the bedroom rapidly. I was told that Shea butter helps to avoid skin problems arising in the summer due to excess heat, sweating and lack of water for cleaning oneself frequently. I used it on my skin and it has helped to clear and check skin rashes.
I remembered vaguely reading somewhere while back in India that sherbet made from Ambadi (Hibiscus cannabinus) flowers is taken in some parts of India during the summers. I found that local Bito is nothing but the same plant and its dried flowers are sold in the market. Local people boil those petals in the water so that sourness of the petals goes away and the boiled cooked petals can be used as a vegetable. I use the extract instead and throw the petals away to make my Ambadi flower sherbet. After coming from outside, all tired and sweating, there is nothing more refreshing than a glass of cool Ambadi flower sherbet. My local friends have also liked the taste of it and they have spread the word around about it.
The one important effect of this heat is that I have become darker in complexion. This added with with my short machine cut hair and shirts made from local cloths make me look more African. That's what was told to me by many people. One important lesson I have learned in this hot season is that nature requires us not to adopt but to adapt to the situation.